The West Hollywood Eastside Redevelopment Agency was born in controversy and apparently will end in controversy.
Currently the City of West Hollywood is engaged in an unseemly dispute with the State of California over redevelopment funds it had earmarked for the renovation of Plummer Park. West Hollywood contends that it is entitled to $14 million that it had budgeted for the park master plan from redevelopment funds.
Although we have heard voices from City Hall claiming that the State of California was taking “our” money, that is an argument that clearly misstates the fact. All funds raised by a redevelopment agency are simply tax revenues that have been diverted from other governmental entities. Redevelopment was a tool by which cities could declare an area “blighted” and then collect the lion’s share of any increase in property tax increases for new developments. The funds being diverted to the redevelopment agency would have otherwise gone to Los Angeles County, LA Unified School District and the State of California.
Unfortunately what the state gives, the state can take away. While redevelopment funds are a wonderful tool to create affordable housing, provide assistance to businesses to clean up dilapidated storefronts or make capital improvements in the neighborhoods within the redevelopment zone, there were billions of dollars being lost in redevelopment agencies across California on wasteful pet projects or unwarranted financial assistance to developers, a form of corporate welfare fraud. Facing a fiscal crisis of an intensity not seen since the Great Depression, Gov. Jerry Brown decided that the needs of the state trumped the needs of local governments and the legislature abruptly abolished redevelopment agencies, leaving scores of planned projects, such as our Plummer Park improvements, unfunded.
No matter how you feel about the city’s $40 million plan to renovate Plummer Park, it is difficult to reconcile the notion of West Hollywood as a compassionate, progressive city with a City Hall attempting to wrestle away millions of dollars needed to keep local schools open, make college tuition affordable and provide basic health care to millions of Californians on limited income. It looks like City Hall is so determined to build a “state of the art performing arts center” in Plummer Park, that we ignore the fact that taking millions from the state ultimately hurts West Hollywood’s school children and our limited-income seniors and people with disabilities.
For all the benefits it provided the community, it is ironic that West Hollywood’s Eastside Redevelopment Agency almost didn’t happen. When I joined the City Council in 1994, Eastside residents were very skeptical of the city’s redevelopment proposals. There was good reason for the skepticism. Crime and street prostitution were rampant along Santa Monica Boulevard east of Curson. The Eastside felt shortchanged on law enforcement and other city services. Residents simply did not trust the city to run a redevelopment agency. Overcoming that distrust was not easy, but ultimately we were able to convince residents that redevelopment would be a positive process.
Although the demise of redevelopment is mired in controversy, redevelopment has been a wonderful tool for revitalizing the Eastside. West Hollywood, unlike other cities with redevelopment agencies, was aggressive about using redevelopment funds to create affordable housing, and we avoided the sorts of shady deals that were common in other cities that blackened the reputation of redevelopment programs.
The City Council was able to convince reluctant Eastside activists to go along with redevelopment after an aggressive Sheriff’s Department presence cleaned up street prostitution, which led to a dramatic drop in crime throughout the area. Furthermore the council promised to respect the opinions of the Eastside residents and set up an Eastside Project Area Committee of locals that would monitor the activities of the agency.
It should be noted that the current spate of high rise buildings that are under construction on the Eastside are not the result of redevelopment. They are the consequence of relatively recent changes in zoning by the City Council that dramatically increased commercial heights in the area. Currently several large parcels are zoned for developments towering up to ten stories, including Movietown Plaza and the former Jon’s Market space.
The public should compare the city’s handling of the first project under redevelopment with the current plethora of supersized high rises under construction.
The Target/Best Buy Gateway site is the largest parcel on the Eastside. In the late 90’s, when the project was under consideration, residents were adamant that they did not want a huge, outsized project. The locals were opposed to Costco’s request to develop the site. Costco spent huge amounts of money on lobbying and would have actually generated more revenue for the General Fund through sales tax.
But the City Council majority abided by the residents’ wishes. The Eastside Gateway project is a two- to two-and-a-half-story project with plenty of on site parking. If the same site came before the City Council today, we would probably see City Hall approving a 15-story project.
By 2012 it is clear that redevelopment has successfully run its course. The Eastside has improved, and property values are up. Neighborhoods like Poinsettia Drive and Place have become incredibly upscale–one of West Hollywood’s best kept secrets. We not only have the affordable housing project at Sierra Bonita, but new affordable housing is being built on La Brea with redevelopment funds while the twin Monarch projects will provide both market-rate rentals and additional affordable units.
While the redevelopment district profits from the increase in property tax from new developments, sales tax increases go to the city’s general fund. The sales tax revenue from Target and Best Buy at the Gateway Project has generated millions of dollars for the city’s general fund. While the groundwork for the city’s current flush finances predates the tenures of most of the current council members, the Eastside Redevelopment Agency has not only generated funds for projects within the redevelopment zone, but also provided funds for our new library and the re-design of West Hollywood Park.
While there is still room for improvement, the Eastside can hardly be described as “blighted”. Rather than mourn the demise of redevelopment, we should celebrate and congratulate ourselves on it many successes.